It’s as I always thought. The really lethal viruses target not just Joe Average, but the Hollywood Elite. One of the film’s major stars — Gwyneth Paltrow — cops it in the first few minutes. Imagine, a star like Gwinny, rich beyond her wildest dreams, good-looking, married to a rock star, with perfect offspring whose very names provide joy and laughter to people all across the world. Contagion says, “This woman can die. A virus can kill her. Honestly? You don’t stand a fucking chance, you loser.”
The virus seems almost polite in the way it kills. A bit of dizziness, a tickly cough, and then foam specked lips, before a camera gets pushed up in your dead face for a wide-eyed close up. This is no overly dramatic Ebola style virus, where blood spews from every orifice in great gushing geysers. There’s no Dustin Hoffman chasing down a monkey. The virus in Contagion just kills you. That’s its purpose. Cold, and clinical.
The story moves at a fairly slow pace, but to try to keep things interesting, we see the impact of the virus through various interweaving plot strands. We have Jude Law trying to be Australian, Kate Winslet looking very serious and stressed, Jennifer Ehle looking very serious and not so stressed, Matt Damonlooking very serious and confused, Marion Cotillard looking very serious and heart stoppingly beautiful, and finally, Laurence Fishburne looking very serious in a big coat.
Yes, it’s all very serious. Whilst there’s much to admire about dedicated scientists toiling to find a cure, it doesn’t always make for an exciting film; they’re fighting something which is unseen. Admittedly, Jude Law as a blogger pushing a homeopathic “solution” to the virus, causes problems. But his sleazy demeanour, and his crooked teeth, make him feel a bit cartoonish next to the rest of the cast.
As if Soderbergh realises the audience may be nodding off at certain points, he jolts the film back to life with a pretty cool electronic soundtrack that throbs like a beating heart. And there are scenes which are typical of thrillers where the protagonists must “race against time”. These tend to fizzle out rather quickly though. Plus, there’s only so much tension you can wring from someone doing lab work, or talking about doing lab work.
However, it’s to Soderbergh’s credit that he treats the subject with genuine respect, and doesn’t turn it into a horror film like 28 Days Later. No offence to films like that, they’re great. But Contagion’s aim is to paint a more realistic picture of a virus outbreak. In that regard, it succeeds. The global pandemic slowly builds like a prologue to a more hellishly apocalyptic sequel, with uncollected rubbish, and rising panic on the streets.
Contagion shows us that even if science can find a cure for such outbreaks, a new virus is probably only around the corner, and the battle would start all over again. At times, it’s fascinating to watch. A documentary, almost. But it’s probably not a film I’d return to for human drama.